Off Campus

A way to connect: Celebrating women at the CNY Women’s Summit

Celebrating Women’s Day at the CNY Women’s Summit

Dozens gathered at the downtown Syracuse event in conjunction with International Women’s Day.

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CNY Women’s Summit attendees scope out the vendor hall that showcased local businesses and organizations on Friday at Syracuse’s Oncenter.

Gwen Webber-McLeod considers herself an accidental feminist.

Despite having parents who grew up in the Jim Crow South — and who endured firsthand discrimination and segregation — Webber-McLeod grew up thinking she could do anything.

Growing up as a Black woman in the late 1950s and ’60s, her parents made sure to instill confidence and self-assurance. From a young age, she was convinced she could be anything she wanted.

“My parents modeled for me the importance of shattering ceilings,” Webber-McLeod said. 

Currently, Webber McLeod is the president and CEO of Gwen, Inc. a private-sector leadership development corporation. Speaking at the CNY Women’s Summit on Friday, she provided insight on building women’s confidence in themselves. 

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Signs welcome visitors to Friday’s CNY Women’s Summit in Syracuse.

Earlier that morning, dozens of women gathered at the Oncenter to celebrate International Women’s Day at the CNY Women’s Summit. The event was hosted by the CNY Women’s Network and provided a space for women throughout Central New York to meet other women and connect.

From the 10 a.m. start, women filed into the building, checking in at the front and then cascading downstairs where they were greeted by an array of women vendors all there to promote their businesses.

Rae Humenick from Boudoir by Rae Taryn wanted to empower women at the summit to love themselves.

A boudoir photographer for three years, Humenick went into her genre of photography to give women a new perspective on how they saw themselves.

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Rae Humenick from Boudoir by Rae Taryn talking to an attendee during Friday’s CNY Women’s Summit.

“I’ve made some incredible connections,” Humenick said. “It’s so refreshing to see that there are so many women who think like I do and have the community over competition mentality.”

Melody Smith Johnson, the community outreach advisor for Wise Women’s Business Center, expressed the importance of connecting women to resources that will help their businesses.

Believing that it is never too late to connect, Smith Johnson said she attended the event because she saw the summit’s importance and wanted to promote her message that women can be better when connected.

“I came here today because I know it’s important to continuously stay connected,” Smith Johnson said. “I’m not good unless we’re all good.”

A community panel moderated by Amy Bleier-Long from CNY Magazine featured panelists discussing what it meant to be a leader in Central New York and how the change that is coming  — the Micron deal and I-81 restructuring — needs everyone’s support. 

“How you talk about Syracuse makes a difference,” said Michele Diecuch, a community panelist and the executive director of Leadership Greater Syracuse. “While there are a lot of things that have to be fixed and have to be addressed, you have to start somewhere.

“Let’s have pride in where we live.”

Melanie Littlejohn, another community panelist and president and CEO of CNY Community Foundation, said it’s important for women to see themselves in other women and advised young women to “stay in the ring.” 

“You are going to be in rooms that you are going to be ‘the only’ or ‘the first,’” Littlejohn said. “Believe in the power of who you are.”

When women see each other, they can become each other, she said. 

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Several local speakers took part in discussions in the CNY Women’s Summit’s main hall.

After breaking for lunch, everyone gathered once again and prepared for a series of career-oriented fireside chats with prominent women leaders in Central New York including Webber-McLeod.

Women first need to define themselves inside their careers, she said. They must ask themselves who they are and why they exist to better understand themselves as women.

Webber-McLeod then advised women to orchestrate their careers in a way that allows them to consistently be the women they envision. Once they do that, they can claim their careers as a resource they will use to live that life and be the women they want to be.

Webber-McLeod also offered a different take on imposter syndrome. Often described as the feeling of not belonging when existing in certain spaces, Webber-McLeod aimed to change that narrative.

“People start to respond to you as if you’re an imposter because they can’t fathom that at your age, you are the smartest person,” she said. “There is a difference between the mindset that I have imposter syndrome versus exploring the idea that I’m being treated as an imposter.”